Hold Fast the World
Grace Stowe Evans
I tried to paint you, but it turned out creepy. It’s not that you aren’t handsome my love, it was the red against the brown. It came out looking like the bloodstain on Papa’s jacket. Dark, and thick all over your chest, and around your eyes. It made you look vicious. It made you look sad. So, I threw it out.
I painted what I had known of myself when I was sick. Brunette curls sticking to my cheeks. Daylilies for hands. Snakes coiled around my ankles. My poppy red throat rising and falling. I painted the skylight wide as the ceiling. Dozens of watercolor galaxies and oil planets. A constellation of you with jewels from Mama’s wedding dress. Even your horns looked beautiful made of diamonds.
Every day after I got better Auntie braided my hair with baby’s breath. Dressed me in white lace and Mary Jane’s. My skin was like wrinkled paper; my legs gaunt and lame. She carried me down to the rocks at sunrise, my easel strapped to her back, and held me upright in the glowing cerulean water. It was pin-pricking cold. I buried my toes in the sand and watched the tide drag in sea stars and shells.
After, Auntie sat on the rocks and watched me paint.
I painted myself now that I was well: the moon covered in clouds and silver roses. I painted you among those roses. Your horns, your dog-like snout, the scars on your back. It wasn’t on purpose. There’s a picture in your scars. Mountains crumbling. Was that on purpose?
The void was hollow black, fritzing like radio static. You came out of the dark, clear as glass. A bull’s head, a checked kilt over a man’s legs, and claws like scissor blades. I lay curled up on the immaterial ground. You picked me up, knobby elbows tucked at your sides, claws printing into my back. The air seemed to follow you. Swirled around you, blowing through the soft tufts of your hair.
Your cave was made of silver roses with thorns sharp as arrowheads. You carried me inside. The ceiling was hung with clothes. Flannel shirts and ripped denim overalls. Loincloths and white shell belts. Pink kimonos embroidered with frayed gold flowers. Boned corsets torn open, shredded bathrobes, all splotched red and hung on a clothesline. There was a peephole in the ceiling, and a star chart made of parchment paper with the constellations poked through. You sat me against the wall, gave me herby cheese and blackberry wine out of an old Minoan krater. I thanked you and asked for your name. You scratched in the dirt: Asterion. Starry one.
“You have eyes like stars,” I said.
You scratched: You do too.
“Must be the silver,” I said.
No one’s come here before.
“You have no one?”
Had sister. She left.
We went into the labyrinth. It was cut into a hedge of red roses. A marble pavilion poked out from the center. You gave me a ball of yarn to mark our path. As I laid it out, you danced. The ground shook when you jumped, shivered under the clip-clop of your hooves. Leaves and buds wobbled. You tipped and fell into the bushes. I pulled thorns out of your scalp and brushed rose petals from your mane. Gingerly, like a mother would.
“That’s what this is,” I said. “A dancing path.”
You bent to write in the dirt: More so now that you are here.
I blushed. “Thank you.”
I danced through the labyrinth. You clapped your hands, claws clicking like a spoon on glass. I bounced to your beat. My nightgown flowed like water. As I spun, I used you to spot. With every turn, I met your eyes. You were like a cartoon. The way you bounced, the way pearly tears formed in your eyes. I think that was when I fell in love with you.
You kept pace behind me as we wound through the hedges. I smiled as I approached the pavilion, pirouetted at the entrance. Three people were lying on the floor. A snoring old man with a Bible cracked open on his chest. A little girl in a nightgown printed with violets. A soldier whose eyes had gone yellow.
“What is this?” I asked.
You pushed past me and grabbed the soldier’s arm, sniffed it like a dog. Then, you bit. You mawed his arm, cracked his bones, slurped up his tendons like noodles. Bore into his stomach, crunching on the buttons of his coat.
You ate all of them. Flesh, bone, nails, and clothes, except for the violet nightgown which you peeled off and tucked in your belt. You turned to me, leaving their hair in bloody clumps on the floor.
“Too stringy,” I said. You roared and came at me. I closed my eyes and stood perfectly still. You stopped. Your breath passed over me like a hot desert wind. You put a slick, red arm around my shoulder, and guided me back to the cave.
I huddled by the wall. You hung the dress on the clothesline.
“There is nothing like you,” I said, “in all the world. Your mother is a nymph, your father a bull. Who’d have thought those two would make something so hungry. But what else could you be? You are not natural.”
“Why didn’t you eat me?”
Because you are special.
When I was eleven, there was an earthquake.
Papa was on the front lines. Mama and I were in the sunroom sewing doll dresses. The furniture was new, polished black with a strong smell of cedar. Mama had bound her hair with a ribbon the color of primroses. She asked me to sit on her lap. I said no and sat on an overturned laundry basket.
It started with the clatter of china. Glass ringing, chairs jumping. Mama told me to stay put. She ran away to get something, some heirloom plate or fork she didn’t want to lose.
My legs felt weak, like the frayed strings of a violin, still playing. I threw up from the headache. I pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes and covered my temples with my thumbs to keep my brain from juggling in its case. To keep the weak part of my skull from cracking. If I’d known you then, I would’ve pictured you. Instead, I pictured myself sitting by the sea.
Mama yelled, her voice shrill. She sounded far away.
The walls plopped over. Mama screamed. The window broke. Glass flew and pinged on the floor. None hit me. I opened my eyes. The debris had all landed within an inch of my bare toes. Mama was lying under the window, the rail snapped over her back, glassy dust stuck in her neck, sparkling like a million tiny rubies.
I offered to wash away the blood. You shook your head and sloshed wine to cover the smell of your breath. We laid down, my head on your shoulder, velvety soft and sturdy as new leather. You smelt of rust and strawberries. I couldn’t sleep from the sound of your snoring, but I didn’t mind. I took in the scent of the roses. Sweaty metal and apricots. I plucked a few petals, ground them with a mortar and pestle and mixed it with water. The paint was thick as molten metal and as bright as your eyes. I dabbed constellations on your chest. Aquarius. Pegasus. Scorpio. I made red paint from the labyrinth roses and painted your horns with daisies, my fingerprints for petals.
As I finished, your sister came to wake you. She sent a rattlesnake slithering over your chest. You jerked up, snatched it, and crushed the spine.
“Rude,” she said, white lips pursed. She stood in shadows, serpents hissing from inside the pockets of her black robes. Her eyes glinted poison ivy green.
I backed into the wall. You put your arm in front of me.
“What is she doing here?” she asked.
“I don’t bring them here to be your pets. Eat her, or be rid of her.” She stepped forward and the shadows followed. “Do you think she likes you? You think she wants to be here?” She kicked you in the side. “You are a monster!” She knocked you over with one bony hand. “She’d rather be eaten than stay with you.”
“Did you see the paint?” I said.
“On his chest, his horns. I painted that on him.”
“You must leave.”
I curled my hand around your claws. “I don’t want to leave.”
She laughed, and she left.
I fell asleep with my arm around your neck and woke up in my bed, toes poking out of pink checkered sheets. I tore them up with my bare hands and cursed your sister’s name.
I know which half of you is monstrous. It was your sister, your half-sister, who sent the snake. At sunset. Right out of the brush, to wind up my easel and wrap around my neck. You said she taught you how to dance before she left you. Before she sent the Athenian to kill you. You said she would let me live. You said that out of all the people she sent into the labyrinth, I was the only one meant to leave alive. Slowly, the snake wound itself tighter and tighter.
I looked up to see if a star would explode or if a planet would be born in a blur. My death would be marked by something greater; a world to reign in my place or to fall with me.